A groundbreaking new theory which suggests that trees have brains, talk to each other, express emotions, and are capable of making friends, may sound barking bad, but there is a growing amount of evidence which are leading more and more scientists to ask the unusual question — are trees an intelligent life-form?
If so, it would appear Lord Of the Rings author J. R. R. Tolkien may have been closer to the truth than he realized when he wrote about the Ents.
For those, and there may be some, not familiar with Middle-earth, the Ents are a sort of talking tree.
And although for a long time many people such as Prince Charles have expressed their joy at talking to trees and plants, no-one really expected the trees to have a voice of their own – until now!
Forester Peter Wohlleben believes trees can not only transmit information and communicate with one another, but he also believes they are capable of learning.
Writing in the Daily Mail, Peter explained that the theory may “sound incredible” but when you discover how trees actually interact, he challenges anyone to remain an unbeliever.
“When you discover how trees talk to each other, feel pain, nurture each other, even care for their close relatives and organize themselves into communities, it’s hard to be skeptical.”
Peter hasn’t always felt this way about trees. In fact he admits he was once pretty oblivious to their “hidden life”. Which is just as well because in the 1980s he was a civil servant with the German forest commission and his job was to “look at hundreds of spruces, beeches, oaks and pines every day, to assess their readiness for the lumber mill and their market value.”
About 20 years ago Peter had something of an epiphany while organizing log cabin breaks for tourists. Observing how the visitors were mesmerized by the character of the gnarled and crooked trees he had an eureka moment.
Peter explained, “I would have dismissed such trees because of their low commercial value, but then I began to pay attention to more than just the quality of the trunk.”
“I noticed bizarre roots, strangely intertwined branches, mossy cushions on bark… all kinds of wonders. Including, unbelievably, evidence of tree friendships.”
Recalling how he found the remains of a “living” tree stump which belonged to an “ancient giant” in the forest that he manages (near the village of Hümmel, east of the Belgian border), Peter confessed how he was stumped that the remains of the tree, which must have been felled at least 400 years ago, perhaps much more, were not completely dead.
“Without leaves, a tree cannot absorb nourishment from the sunlight. Living cells must have food in the form of sugar, and they must breathe. The roots of the stump ought to have suffocated and starved to death long ago.
“One possible answer existed. The other beeches around the stump had been pumping sugar into it for centuries to keep it alive, through their tangled roots.
“Most individual trees of the same species growing in the same copse or stand will be connected through their root systems. It appears that helping neighbors in times of need is the rule, which leads to the conclusion that forests are super-organisms, much like ant colonies.”
Research by Professor Massimo Maffei at the University of Turin has proven that trees are able to identify their own species from other plants and even pick out their relations from other trees.
Some trees have roots which are so deeply entwined that like an old married couple they die together.
Peter writes that when the thick silver-grey beeches in his forest identify hungry or diseased individuals and join together to support and nourish them until they recover, they remind him of a herd of elephants.
“Like the herd, they look after their own, helping the sick and the weak back onto their feet.
“And like that old stump revealed, they are even reluctant, like elephants, to abandon their dead. Of course, this cannot be done for every stump. Most rot and disappear within a couple of hundred years — which is not very long for a tree. But a few are maintained on life support for centuries. It appears to be the closeness of connection, or even affection, that determines how helpful the other trees will be.”
Alongside silent support, trees can do a lot more, as Dr Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver has discovered.
Trees can apparently use fungal networks, that stretch under the soil between their roots, to send warnings using chemical signals and electrical impulses. Peter writes that this is known as the “wood wide web.”
“Over centuries, if left undisturbed, a single fungus can cover many square miles and create a network throughout an entire forest. Through these links, trees can send signals about insects, drought and other dangers.
“News bulletins are transmitted by chemical compounds and also by electricity, travelling at an inch every three seconds.
“In comparison with the lightning impulses in mammal bodies, that is extremely slow. But there are species, such as jellyfish and worms, whose nervous systems conduct impulses at similar speeds.”
Although at first Peter remained dubious that trees could communicate through making noises, new research from Dr Monica Gagliano at the University of Western Australia has changed his mind.
“It’s believed trees crackle at a frequency of 220 hertz, which the human ear hears as a low A note.
“When this note was played back to seedlings, their roots tilted towards the sound. It appears they could hear it, and were responding.”
Peter, who has written a book on his love for the complexity of trees called, The Hidden Life Of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, believes the main reason humans cannot perceive the essential truth of trees is one of perspective.
“The main reason humans cannot perceive how clever and complex they are is because we exist in such short time scales by comparison. There’s a tree in Sweden for instance, a spruce, that is more than 9,500 years old. That’s 115 times longer than the average human lifespan.
“A tree’s childhood lasts ten times as long as ours. Activities that take us moments — waking up or stretching our limbs, can last months for a tree.
“It’s hardly surprising that most of us see trees as practically inanimate, nothing more than objects. But the truth is very different. They are just as intensely alive as we are… and for much, much longer.”
[Featured Image by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images]